COVID-19 cases are low in Florida — and deaths remain steady — but scientists warn that an uptick in infections is likely after the holidays.
Other respiratory illnesses are also spiking, including the flu.
The Tampa Bay Times asked infectious disease experts and hospital leaders for tips on how area residents can keep themselves and others safe from the swarm of viruses.
Here’s what they said.
Be mindful of your ‘social bubble’
“It’s unrealistic to think everybody’s going to exercise every mitigation,” said Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist. People are tired of masks and social distancing.
But even if someone is at low risk for serious COVID-19 complications — a healthy young adult, for example— they should plan their holidays around the dangers that others face, Salemi said.
“Maybe I’m not concerned about me personally,” Salemi said, “but I’m certainly concerned about the higher risk people in my family who I might be interacting with.”
Seniors, individuals with underlying conditions such as heart or lung disease, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely to become seriously ill from cases of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a common infection that causes symptoms resembling a cold.
Young children are also prone to flu and RSV complications.
“Just know that your risk tolerance is not in isolation,” Salemi said. “It’s the risk tolerance for you and your social bubble.”
Wear masks … sometimes
Older residents and immunocompromised people should consider wearing masks at indoor events, said Laura Arline, chief quality officer at the 15-hospital BayCare Health System.
And everyone should consider wearing them in crowded public places, added Allison Messina, chief of the division of infectious disease at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, offered a more urgent warning for those with weakened immune systems: “They should right now be putting their masks back on. They should right now be thinking, ‘I’ll rent a movie rather than (go) to a movie.’ … They ought to be avoiding indoor gatherings of large groups.”
Be careful around infants
With RSV spiking, people with respiratory symptoms should avoid infants if they can, wash their hands and wear masks if around them, Messina said.
The virus can cause bronchiolitis and pneumonia in young children. Some may be hospitalized due to breathing problems. Up to 300 kids under age 5 die from RSV each year in the U.S.
Test, test, test
Two days before visiting vulnerable family members for Thanksgiving or other gatherings, take an at-home COVID-19 test, Salemi said. Then take another on the holiday itself.
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When people develop mild respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose, they “tend to rationalize” and blame their illness on allergies or an ailment that isn’t COVID-19, Arline said. That’s because they don’t want to miss family celebrations.
Rather than guess, she said, get tested.
“You don’t want to bring an unintended gift to a holiday party and spread COVID all around,” Arline said.
At-home tests are sold at pharmacies. Those with private health insurance can check to see if there’s an in-network or preferred location to buy them without having to pay up front. If there isn’t, submit a claim to get reimbursed for the costs. (Make sure to keep the receipt.)
Florida is beautiful during the winter. Gather outside for a family meal (if the weather cooperates), Salemi said. It’s safer than crowding together in a small, poorly ventilated room.
People should get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu, said Peggy Duggan, chief medical officer at Tampa General Hospital.
Everyone ages 5 and older is eligible for the new Pfizer-BioNTech booster — and those 6 and up can get Moderna’s — as long as it’s been at least two months since their last COVID-19 shot, whether that was a previous booster or their initial vaccination. The updated boosters target the original virus strain and two omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5.
Watch case counts — and sewage data
Many people use at-home COVID-19 tests and don’t report their results to health authorities. That means case counts are underestimates. But it’s still useful to monitor them, Salemi said. Residents can get a “general sense” of virus trends and take precautions when they see the pathogen surging.
The Florida Department of Health used to update its pandemic data daily, but now it releases the information every two weeks. That means the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers more up-to-date data on viral spread.
Find out more
The Tampa Bay Times is reporting on how people with weakened immune systems are navigating the pandemic. Contact reporter Sam Ogozalek to share your story.